When the Bears kick off training camp at Halas Hall Tuesday, these will be the top storylines on defense:
(1) The continuing transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense.
The Bears hope to have the same success in Matt Eberflus' first season as head coach as the Colts enjoyed in Eberflus' first year as Indianapolis' defensive coordinator in 2018.
Inheriting a Colts defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in both scoring and total yards in 2017, Eberflus helped the unit improve to 10th in scoring and 11th in yards in 2018. After finishing with a 4-12 record in 2017, Indianapolis rebounded to earn a wild-card berth with a 10-6 mark in 2018.
In 2020, the Colts went 11-5 and reached the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The defense ranked eighth in yards and second against the run. In 2021, the Colts finished second in the NFL with 33 takeaways.
As part of the switch to a 4-3 scheme, players such as Trevis Gipson, Sam Kamara and Charles Snowden, who previously were outside linebackers in the Bears' 3-4 defense, have moved to defensive end.
One key to success will be how quickly players learn the new defense and buy into Eberflus' "HITS" principle—which is an acronym for "Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and (playing) Smart." It was a staple during his time in Indianapolis, when the Colts finished in the top 10 in the NFL in run defense and takeaways all four years, top 10 in points allowed three times and were the least penalized defense in the league twice.
Shortly after being hired, Eberflus vowed that the Bears would be known for relentless effort and hustle, saying: "We will play at a high tempo, a high effort, attacking, physical style, built upon speed, quickness and explosive athletic ability. We will carry ourselves with an attitude of energy, passion and intensity. We will play with maximum effort on every play."
(2) The growth of their top two draft picks.
The Bears addressed a secondary that underperformed last season with their first two picks in this year's draft, selecting Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon at No. 39 and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker at No. 48 in the second round. Both have the opportunity to open the season as starters but must earn those jobs by impressing in training camp and the preseason.
Becoming a full-time starter for the first time last season, he was named first-team All-Pac 12 after establishing career highs with 46 tackles and nine pass breakups while registering his first two interceptions. A special teams standout earlier in his career at Washington, Gordon impressed the Bears with his competitiveness and toughness on defense last year.
Brisker appeared in 34 games with 21 starts the past three seasons at Penn State, compiling 152 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for-loss, five interceptions and 19 pass breakups. Last season he was named first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American after generating 63 tackles, 3.0 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. As of Monday, Brisker was the only member of the Bears' 12-man draft class who remained unsigned.
Eberflus is confident that Gordon and Brisker will excel as rookies, especially after young players such as linebackers Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker and cornerback Kenny Moore all made an immediate impact on the Colts defense under Eberflus.
"If you look back at our system, we have played young players fast, and they have played very well," Eberflus said. "That's what the system does. It's a system where we rely on techniques and fundamentals and the coach/player relationship, and that's important to us. It's a partnership, and we've been able to do that."
Gordon and Brisker join a Bears secondary that features two returning starters in cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safety Eddie Jackson. The veterans both should help the rookies transition into the NFL.
(3) The emergence of young pass rushers.
With Khalil Mack's departure via a trade with the Chargers and Robert Quinn's future in Chicago unclear, the Bears will need to develop some young pass rushers in training camp.
Expectations are especially high for Gipson, a third-year pro who moves from outside linebacker to defensive end, the position he played at Tulsa. The 2020 fifth-round pick blossomed last season, registering 39 tackles, 7.0 sacks, seven tackles-for-loss and five forced fumbles. He especially excelled down the stretch, recording four of his seven sacks in the final five games and three of his five forced fumbles in the last two contests.
The Bears bolstered their pass rush during the offseason by signing veteran free agent defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, who spent the past four seasons playing for Eberflus in Indianapolis. Last year in his first season as a regular starter, Muhammad opened all 17 games and compiled career highs with 48 tackles and 6.0 sacks and also recorded seven tackles-for-loss.
The Bears are high on rookie fifth-round pick Dominique Robinson, a defensive end who possesses intriguing athleticism and potential as a pass rusher. Robinson arrived at Miami (Ohio) as a quarterback, switched to receiver as a freshman in 2017 and was moved to defensive end as a senior in 2020. Last season the 6-5, 253-pounder registered 28 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks while playing in 12 games.
Other young defensive ends who will be given a chance to demonstrate their pass-rushing skills in training camp include returnees Kamara and Snowden and undrafted rookie Carson Taylor, who recorded 19.0 sacks and 36.0 tackles-for-loss over five seasons at Northern Arizona.